In the wake of a devastating attack in Pulwama, warmongering had already begun across the border. It was divisive but expected rhetoric. The hardline narrative is after all Narendra Modi’s calling card when it came to optics. It is why his voter-base continues to cling to him, despite the naysayers. So it was shocking, but not surprising, that he would use a tragedy, any tragedy, to bolster his strongman image.
What was a surprise though, was how quickly petty PR games escalated. That people in power would misjudge the situation so completely, at the risk of real-world consequences. And a week later, while most of us reel and sigh, the great divide is not yet behind us.
Talks of large-scale escalations have simmered down, but their echoes are still audible. Nobody is celebrating surgical strikes anymore, but sovereign borders still need protecting. A captured Indian Air Force pilot made his way home safely, but nobody can discard the shroud of insecurity. And though the dust settles, we are yet again speaking around Kashmir, rather than about it.
There has been a lot of talk about populism these days. With commentators and scholars on either side debating about the perceived populist tendencies of a particular politician. When you listen to the barking news madness, one assumes that this is another word that we lost to the inter-web jungle.
Once upon a time, populism was, albeit still divisive, a movement along economic lines. The earliest populists, were rebelling against railroad barons, land-grabs or even a system that supported economic inequalities. Proud purveyors of market economics would call their grievances regressive. But, upon forsaking the rose-tinted glasses of bullish capitalism, their plight is understandable. That progress requires sacrifices is not a good enough excuse when people’s lives and liberty are at stake.
But contemporary populism is sketched along cultural lines. It is right-wing in its ethos, because it seeks to exploit a fear of the ‘other’. It is not a matter of haves and have nots, but rather ‘us’ and ‘them’. Modern day politicians have very artfully disguised this version populism as its days-of-yore counterpart. So we get debates about how people fear job insecurity, dipped in an ‘evil-foreigners’ rhetoric.
By way of his promises to protect India’s national and cultural interests, Narendra Modi adopts right-wing populism. And many a marginalised community is often at the end of his canon. But the most convenient enemy, for Indian hardliners, has always been Pakistan.
Pakistan and India; Shifting Tides
In the wake of a terrorist attack, the emotional spectrum runs the course between fear and confused anger. As someone who spent a chunk of my life in Pakistan, I understand this too well. But the political agendas of the day dictate where such panic is directed. In this case, the Modi government offered an understandably angry people a politically convenient target.
Suddenly, questions about intelligence reports, and slow responses died down. Instead, the Indian government was hailed for its promise to isolate Pakistan internationally.
In the advent of an alleged strike, there were literal celebrations. Ecstatic television anchors ensured people that more than three hundred militants had been killed. Nobody questioned these numbers, despite reports that discredited them.
The fervour that followed lasted until Pakistan retaliated. Until Indian Air Force planes were shot down, and a pilot captured. Within moments, ecstasy turned into anger. Such is the fragility of strongman tactics; they cannot last when the myths about herculean strength are themselves shattered. Abhinandan Varthaman’s capture gave potential conflict a human face.
Strange though this may sound, but when people talk of war, they never take its various realities into account. But when an Indian is captured by the Pakistani military, suddenly these realities must be taken into consideration.
Within minutes, the tide turned for the Modi government. No longer was there collective jubilation, replaced instead by fragmented calls to bring Abhinandan Vathaman home.
Haven’t We Been Here Before?
I can’t have been the only one embracing a sense of Déjà vu, when the alleged Indian strike was first reported. Not, when a mainstream Bollywood movie inspired by the Modi government’s much celebrated ‘surgical strike’, is barely two months old.
The disparate parts of both situations seemed to be exactly the same. Like the one following the attack in Uri, this recent Indian advent into international borders, was also a tad exaggerated. Much like the previous incursion, this one also involved Pakistan, India and their respective nuclear capabilities.
But, nobody called the 2016 ‘strike’ a modern day Cuban Missile Crisis.
There was very little international alarm in 2016. Foreign dignitaries did not offer themselves as mediators.
Because, while it was a slap in the face of diplomacy, and even sovereignty, the 2016 situation never threatened to be anything more. But because Pakistan chose to respond this time, the recent standoff did pose a threat to international security.
Winners and Losers (Really?)
As the mist clears, there have been attempts to understand, and decide on a winner. Most analysts have claimed that Narendra Modi’s image took a battering. Yes, his core collection of die-hards continues to support him. But, nationally and internationally, his image has shifted from the market-happy reformer to a short-sighted opportunist.
In contrast, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan seems to have won over even his harshest critics.
In the run-up to the Pakistani election for example, Fatima Bhutto was an ardent critic of his political clout. But after the decision to release Abhinandan Vathaman, even she praised his government.
But neither side should have any doubts; this situation has not been resolved. Nobody won, and we all came perilously close to losing everything. Unsurprisingly, both sides of the border have strapped into damage control mode.
The Modi government has to save face, and mitigate whatever damage its bullish tactics have caused. I am hoping that they do this by way of sensibly thought-out foreign policy, and not more immature attempts at strong-arming. Although, my hopes may be dashed, as just two days ago there were reports of an Indian submarine attempting to enter Pakistan’s waters. But I will cling to optimism for as long as I can.
In Pakistan, the Imran Khan government realises that it has been thrown a political life-line. It has emerged from the storm with more supporters, and fewer critics. The fact that it is working to crack-down on militant outfits, can be seen as a bid to hold on to this positivity.
The Silver Lining (If You Want To See It)
Times are grim, and as I have hinted throughout the article, we’re not in the clear yet. But there is a silver lining amidst all of this. But you have to really want to see it.
The people of Kashmir have suffered, they are in fact suffering even in the midst of a potential global conflict. And prior to the Pakistan-India standoff, the international community seemed tone-deaf to their cries. In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack itself, there were reports of violence and harassment. But, unfortunately, no world leader batted an eyelash.
However, because of the possibility of a conflict between two nuclear powers, the issue of Kashmir has also gained traction.
In a scathing account of the Modi government’s handling of the situation, Arundhati Roy lambasted his “reckless” actions. Stating that, “by goading Pakistan into a counter-strike…Modi has internationalised the Kashmir dispute. He demonstrated to the world that Kashmir is potentially the most dangerous place on earth, the flash-point for nuclear war.”
Now, this may amount to nothing. Because yet again, the interests of Pakistan and India will be given more weight than what is happening in Kashmir. But, it is possible that in a bid to deescalate tensions, the international polity takes notice of Kashmir. It is possible, that human rights violations are given their due importance. And that in a bid to ensure global peace, world leaders take the plight of Kashmiri people into account.
It is a long, overly-optimistic shot. But like I said, I’ll be clinging on to optimism for as long as I can.